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'The President': Miguel Asturias’s Tale of Latin American Tyranny Remains as Prescient as Ever

Drawing on his personal experiences under the reign of Estrada Cabrera, Asturias explored the nature of a totalitarian state and how it annihilated human dignity and spirit.

My father was one of the victims of the man for whom all the torments of Hell are waiting—Colonel Parrales Sonriente— that hired assassin whose deeds will some day figure  in history, if there is anyone prepared to dip his pen in snake-poison to write it.

Tyrants seem different from each other as they appear at unique moments in time, yet history tells us that all of them think and act alike – and have not very dissimilar effects on their people. Reading Miguel Asturias’s Spanish novel The President, one learns these lessons, only to marvel at the regularity with which these monsters appear in our midst.

The chilling aspect of this recurring historical situation is how each time a self-aggrandising caucus rallies around a tyrant to raise him up to a level from where he can kill and maim at will and with impunity. In this bargain, common people become the tyrant’s greatest allies as fear seeps into them—as their everyday petty needs and petty differences force them to turn a blind eye to the injustice perpetrated against others. In a dictatorship, of course, no one remains untouched; no one remains un-dehumanised.

Miguel Angel Asturias (1899–1974) was a Guatemalan author who single-handedly transformed the Spanish novel, both in form and content, with works like El señor presidente (The President, 1946),  Hombres de maíz (Men of Maize, 1949), and the remarkable Banana Trilogy published between 1950 and 1960.

While The President documents the traumatic experiences of people under a totalitarian regime, Men of Maize embodies the spirit and imagination of the indigenous people –the Mayan Indians – of Guatemala. It also depicts, like Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, the effects of the appearance of multinational corporations on the scene and the role of capitalism in exploiting natives and natural resources in the country.

The Banana Trilogy must be called a genuine anti-capitalist novel, presenting the historically true account of the manner in which multinational companies like the United Fruit Company of the US made deep inroads in Guatemala employing money and brute force to capture the land of the peasants and to bring them under their control. The trilogy records the destructive forces unleashed by capitalist greed that wreaked havoc on the spiritual and imaginative lives of the Mayan Indians who had always lived in peace and harmony with the environment.

For the writing of The President, however, Asturias had drawn on his own personal experiences and his family’s struggles under the reign of the Guatemalan dictator Estrada Cabrera. The intensity of expression and images derives from a deep sense of personal deprivation and remorse at the suffering of his mother and father during these trying times.

Also read: Are Dictators on the Way out – or on the Way Up?

It ought to be memorialised here that his father Ernesto Asturias was a magistrate of the Supreme Court of Justice under the dictator Cabrera. However, when the case of the students who were protesting against the dictator’s rule was brought before him, he chose to uphold the noble principles of freedom of speech and dissent by deciding not to punish or indict the students. Both he and his schoolteacher wife were consequently removed from their jobs, and had to leave the capital city for a small town.

This was a formative experience for Asturias as he was a teenager then and not only did he never forget the evil nature of oppressive structures after this, but his father’s example inspired him throughout his life to fight for justice and to expose exploitation in all its forms.

Miguel Ángel Asturias
The President
(W&N, 2018)

The President remains Asturias’s passionate exploration of the nature of a totalitarian state and the evil and fear that it generates to annihilate human dignity and spirit.

Set in a totalitarian state, Asturias’s novel begins with the killing of Colonel Parrales Sonriente, the hatchetman of the state’s president, by a half-crazed beggar Zany, who flies into a maniacal rage whenever the word ‘Mother’ is uttered before him. Zany is sleeping in the porch of the city’s cathedral, a place where the homeless beggars of the capital city take refuge every night. As the colonel enters the porch to visit the cathedral, he recognises Zany lying there and in a whimsical act calls out ‘Mother’ to him. The beggar is aroused from his deep sleep, and leaping up seizes and hits the colonel hard without recognising who he is. The colonel taken by surprise and numbed by the suddenness of the attack is unable to react and is killed instantly in a freak occurrence.

The incident is as much farcical as absurd, and adds to the phantasmagoric atmosphere of the novel, besides triggering a chain of events with tragic consequences for many individuals living in the state capital. Zany is hunted down and shot dead in cold blood by the secret police officer Lucio Vasquez. However, the non-political and entirely accidental killing of the colonel becomes an excuse for the president to eliminate his rivals – the retired General Canales and the recalcitrant lawyer Licenciado Carvajal.

To achieve his end, the president orchestrates a series of events, whose purpose is not only to annihilate his opponents but also to consolidate his power, and to induce fear in political rivals and people alike.  Evil as the President is, he effects, with the help of his confidant Miguel Cara de Angel, the escape of the general to make him look as responsible for the murder of Colonel Parrales Sonriente. He also forces the advocate general to indict the lawyer, and eventually to have him executed. In the midst of all of this, Cara de Angel commits the fatal error of falling in love with the general’s daughter Camila and marrying her.

The president, adept at seizing self-promoting opportunities and inventive in malevolent stratagems, publishes false news in newspapers that he has attended the wedding of the general’s daughter. Camila’s father General Canales reads it in a foreign country and dies after a heart attack. After a few months, Cara de Angel is treacherously arrested on the orders of the President and thrown into a dark dungeon to rot alive till he is also imparted the false information that his wife has become the president’s mistress. He also dies heartbroken, bereft of all hope and faith in life.

Asturias astutely intersperses the main plot with events and descriptions that provide vivid glimpses of life in a totalitarian state.

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The lives of three people –  General Canales, the lawyer Licenciado Carvajal, and Miguel Cara de Angel– intersect in The President, and are brutally snuffed out at the behest of the tyrant himself. The general’s death although managed can be termed tame and peaceful in contrast to the manner in which the deaths of the other two are planned, manipulated and enacted.

The killing of Sonriente at the hand of half-mad Zany is totally accidental and unintentional. The beggars who were asleep in the cathedral porch are arrested, tortured and asked to sign statements that Sonriente was killed by Canales and Carvajal. One of the beggars resists and is ruthlessly killed in front of the other beggars who immediately sign false confessions implicating Canales and Carvajal.

At the behest of the all-controlling dictator,  the police and the judicial system work in tandem to frame two innocent public figures who can be a threat in the future for the President – ‘the indictment charging Canales and Carvajal with sedition, rebellion and treason, with all possible aggravating circumstances.’

The scene of Carvajal’s trial is a classic:

“The table round which the tribunal sat was covered by a flag, as prescribed by the regulations. The beggars were sitting in the witnesses’ seats. Carvajal turned and looked at the members of the tribunal, searching for signs of wisdom and judgement. The first one his eyes encountered was as drunk as it was possible to be. And the President (of the tribunal), who was giving the most finished performance of them all as an alcoholic, seemed on the point of passing out.”

Carvajal is neither given adequate time to read the ninety-one pages of the indictment nor allowed to defend himself against the charges. Since the tribunal knows that he is innocent, this is considered waste of time and an exercise in futility. The tribunal has been meticulous, however, to ensure that “the sentence had been drawn up and written out in advance” – and it is now served on him. Carvajal is executed the next morning.

In a totalitarian state corruption always seeps from top to bottom.  Asturias amplifies it with the description of the judge advocate general, the highest judicial authority in the state who has swindled a brothel owner of ten thousand pesos, and is all too willing to prostitute his office to serve the tyrant. When Carvajal’s widow comes to his house to know where the body of her husband is buried the judge’s servant sympathises with her, only to be chastised by his master when he learns about it:

“When will you understand that you mustn’t encourage people to hope? In my house the first thing everyone, down to the cat, has to learn is that there are never grounds for hope of any description for anyone. It’s only possible to go on holding a position like mine if you obey orders; the President’s rule of conduct is never to give grounds for hope, and everyone must be kicked and beaten until they realise the fact.”

Also read: Shakespeare’s Tyrants and the Dictators of Our Times

In the case of Angel Face, the president personally advises him to visit a foreign land to find out who all are behind the campaign to malign him as the election approaches.  It is a trap sprung by the President like a ruthless hunter preparing his hounds to unleash after the quarry during a hunt. Angel Face is arrested as he reaches the port from where he is supposed to embark on his voyage in a steamer.  The scene of his arrest encapsulates how treachery and betrayal become the norm in a totalitarian situation, providing a fertile ground to self-serving individuals only to thrive:

“Angel Face waved a greeting from a distance to the man waiting in the station-it was Major Farfan. He was delighted to find a friend whose life he had saved at this crucial moment in his own.”Major Farfan ! “”

However, Farfan shows no gratitude for what Angel Face had done for him, arrests him and as he leads him away as a prisoner even allows the soldiers to strike him and humiliate him at each turn. When Angel Face resists Farfan himself joins in:

“Farfan was afraid of what Angel Face might say, and struck him with the whip. It left its mark on the unfortunate man’s cheek; with one knee on the ground he struggled to free his hands from their bonds. “I understand,” he said in a voice trembling with uncontrollable bitterness; “I understand. This exploit may earn you another star . . .”

The self-seeking are willing to prostitute their conscience in a Faustian compact in their desire for the crumb of an award to be tossed their way. The irony is Angel Face was not too long ago himself the henchman of the tyrant and even considered his favourite. Only when he dares to make an independent move of marrying Camila, the daughter of General Canales, and that too without the President’s consent, that his nemesis – the tyrant’s all controlling power– finally catches up with him. He is thrown into an underground prison cell where sunlight enters only briefly, and where he is fed from a hole like an animal.

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Everything is certainly done with the connivance of the judge advocate general and the police. Angel Face is able to survive only as he lives for the love of his wife and hopes to see her again one day. However, his death is hastened when the Chief of the Secret Police offers money to a prisoner to win Angel Face’s confidence first and then to tell him the lie that his wife has chosen to be the president’s mistress.

The Chief of the Secret Police indites and sends to the President the following memo on the death of Angel Face:

Died of infectious dysentery. – “This is all I have the honour to impart to the President . . .”

Like the police, the army is in thrall to the President, acting not to defend the country or fight just wars, but willing to be a brutal force behind his evil designs.

Miguel Angel Asturias. Photo: nobelprize.org

The judiciary is completely co-opted and its top executive, the judge advocate, serves neither justice nor his conscience, but has willingly become an evil tool to employ a corrupted, false, and perverted form of justice to strengthen the tyrant’s hands and to decimate his rivals. He stands for a compromised judiciary employed relentlessly and increasingly as a legitimising weapon by tyrants and totalitarian states. Asturias finished the novel in 1932, and was instinctively prescient as Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini used exactly the same tactics to make the judges and the judiciary an instrument of their evil designs and a means to terrorise their opponents and people alike.

As a writer himself, Asturias’s bitterest and deepest hurt comes from the role of the poet in the state of things. The calling and the office of a poet is sacred and stands far above the rest in a culture as he is deemed to be an upholder of truths and noble aspirations. But in a spine-tingling scene—again a forerunner of what happened in the Soviet Russia, Germany and Italy—a poet declares his allegiance to the tyrant who only lives and prospers with deceit and intrigue:

“Patriots, I think as a Poet, but I speak as a patriotic citizen. It is the Constitutional President of the Republic, gentlemen-as no doubt you have all realised-whom I refer to as Nietzsche’s Superman, the Super-unique . . . I say it and I repeat it from this platform.”

In the totalitarian bargain, no institution in the state is left untouched, uncaptured; no individual is left unpolluted, unpossessed. Asturias gives us a glimpse of the President’s mail-bag, which contains letters of people who are either his victims or who are willing to oppress these victims in the delusion that this would save them from becoming victims themselves.

Letter number fifteen from one Monica Perdomino, a patient in the General Hospital, on bed No. 14 in San Rafael Ward, is particularly telling. She informs the president that a patient lying next to her utters the name of General Canales in her delirium. And so, she writes,  ‘it might be advisable for someone to keep watch and take notes.’ She concludes the letter with the words: ‘The signatory sends the President this information out of her humble admiration for his Government.’ – a reminder how common people play a central role in extending the tyrants’ reach and in strengthening their hold.

The contemporary relevance of Miguel Asturias’s The President – written almost a century ago – can hardly be missed in modern times. As cyber technologies provide new tyrants with the capability to convert their totalitarian states into digital panopticons, these perpetrators of evil remain constant in their will to control and manipulate individuals.

Their ‘willing executioners’ and agents – all found in Asturias’s The President – also remain relentless in their resolve to pimp their vocation and talent, their minds and souls for the consolidation of their masters’  diabolical power.

Shikoh Mohsin Mirza teaches English at the University of Lucknow, Lucknow